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Navigating the Bhutanese Media Landscape in a New Democracy

logo1With Bhutan's recent transition into democracy, and the lifting of the ban on television and there internet, the role of a more open media has become more of a priority for the country. One of the national organizations that is seeking to play a positive role in helping society navigate this transition regarding the media and free expression is the Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy (BCMD).

Formed with the idea to support citizens to become more active in a democratic society, the BCMD helps educate and train citizens in media literacy and other skills-building activities. As outlined in its values:

BCMD believes in the power of ideas and openness to change the world. We believe that Bhutanese society is capable of making Gross National Happiness a reality through a vigorously contested and transparent set of elected institutions, a professional media and literate society, social justice and equity.

The BCMD's Executive Director, Siok Sian Pek-Dorji sees a positive outlook for the country with the promise of a more active Bhutanese digital space as more and more people use the Internet to become better informed and connected. With the government's plans to build fibre-optic connections across the country and its diverse terrain, even more people will be able take advantage of these technologies to participate more actively in the new democracy.

Rising Voices spoke to Pek during a Skype interview and an email interview:

Rising Voices: What are some of the biggest challenges facing Bhutanese online media?

Pek Dorji: Bhutanese are now receiving a deluge of information via online media, many of us are not familiar with the online world and have not developed the ability to judge credibility of content. There is an increasing number of youth addicted to online media but they are largely watching youtube videos and using FB to communicate. The authenticity of content – and the ability of people to use social media in a responsible manner to share our views continues to be a challenge as many fall prey to the tendency to hide behind anonymity and to use online media to launch personal attacks or criticism that does not go well with making change in a country long used to more civility in our communications and exchange.

Online media are also only available to the educated urbanites and do not reach the people in rural areas. It is also largely a world of communications in the english language – Bhutan's second language and not the commonly spoken language in rural Bhutan. Thus, many people are not connected to this online world.

RV: What role does the BCMD play in helping to address some of these challenges? And what are some of the activities or strategies that the BCMD is involved with to help overcome these challenges?

PD: BCMD has initiated several activities to overcome the challenges:

We conducted a social media and democracy conference [2010?]. where decision-makers, MPs [Members of Parliament], media and young people learnt how to use social media – including start online accounts to share their views. Code of ethics of engagement and the legal implications were discussed during the conference.

We have modeled online forums that aim to be inclusive and to encourage people to post using their own names. e.g. http://bhutanspeaks.bt and http://www.bhutancsos.org

We continue to conduct media and democracy literacy activities through colleges, schools, among adults and teachers where we explore fairness and bias in media, and how to deconstruct media content. We conduct sessions on social media use and highlight areas that require our awareness – e.g. code of ethics, how to engage responsibly, privacy rules etc.

We teach multimedia skills, as well as blogging and writing, and have covered nearly 200 people posted in rural areas to enable them to share their stories from rural Bhutan. In a country of 3/4 million in a mountainous and landlocked country – communications is a challenge. Online media helps to connect us – and our training and media sensitization of local officers in rural area shave resulted in a blog – this helps in a country where the mainstream media continue to focus on urban centric and capital centered stories.

The BCMD has also opened up the Media Lab in the capital city of Thimpu, where Bhutanese youth can have access to technology allowing them to create content important to them through the use of digital media tools. Through media creation workshops and the establishment of Media Clubs, the Lab provides ongoing support to its members.

RV: How has the BCMD Media Lab played a positive role in training and developing new voices in the Bhutanese online space? What are the future plans for this gathering space?

PD: The lab has enabled BCMD to incubate several ideas and activities to amplify voice especially among youth. We plan to grow the space to make it a vibrant learning space for youth and members of civil society so they may learn to use technology to tell their stories m, share their concerns and ideas. We're uploading some of the better podcasts online and will continue to grow the site to provide a space for youth voices. With 6 out of 10 people in Bhutan under the age of 25, we believe youth voice is essential to enabling Bhutan's democracy to evolve.

Two of these new podcasters, Jigme Tshewang and Karma Dupchu were recently featured on Rising Voices. For the past year, Rising Voices has been supporting the BCMD with the expansion of these audio podcasting workshops across the country.

RV: What are your thoughts on the BCMD audio podcast project that Rising Voices is supporting?

PD: It's enabled BCMD to test a means of sharing stories through word of mouth. In an oral society, we believed that this may come easier than the written narrative form. We've been able to inspire some youth in sharing their stories through podcasts and hope to be able to develop this genre of storytelling and to collaborate with local radio stations to highlight some of the podcasts. We continue to train young people through our media lab and clubs and we have plans to integrate the podcast into a multimedia form of story telling.

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